Audie Murphy

The most decorated American soldier of World War II

Audie Murphy
(Photo: Congressional Medal of Honor Society)

Audie Murphy (1925-1971) is a household name among American World War II history buffs. The most highly decorated American soldier of the war (and possibly ever), he was a country boy from a poor family who rose from private to major and became a popular actor after the war. What you might not know is that he was also a victim of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Read our earlier article), a vocal proponent of better care for veterans suffering from PTSD, a country songwriter, and a war poet. This article is about one of the iconic heroes of American military history.

Murphy posing with a cannon in an Austrian castle on the same day he received the Medal of Honor

Audie Leon Murphy was born as one of 12 siblings in a family of poor Texas sharecroppers. His father drifted away from and back to the family time and again, until he eventually deserted them for good. Audie, a child of sudden tempers and mood swings, dropped out of school in fifth grade to pick cotton and hunt small game to help support the family. His mother died in 1941; some of Murphy’s siblings were placed in an orphanage, others were taken in by relatives.

Young Audie Murphy with a rifle after a squirrel hunting trip

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Murphy volunteered with the Marines, the Army and the Navy, but was rejected from all three due to being underweight and underage. He changed his diet to gain weight, and got his eldest sister Corinne to write a false affidavit claiming he was born in 1924, one year before his real birth day; the ruse eventually got him in the Army in June 1942. Murphy once fainted during a close order drill while training. His company commander thought the 5 ft 5.5 in (1.66 m) tall and 112 lb (50.8 kg) heavy recruit would be unsuited for combat duty and wanted to transfer him to a cook and baker’s school, but Murphy insisted on staying a combat infantryman.

Private Audie Murphy (front, center) with fellow trainees during basic training

He arrived in Casablanca in French Morocco in February 1943 as a soldier in the 3rd Infantry Division commanded by Major General Lucian Truscott. The division underwent further training in Africa in preparation for the invasion of Sicily. As part of the training exercises, Murphy had to go on 8-hour 30-mile (48 km) marches called “Truscott Trots.”  

Murphy first saw combat in Sicily, even though he missed part of the action due to the first of what would be several bouts of illness during the war. By the time Sicily was secured, he became acquainted with the reality of war, later writing "I have seen war as it actually is, and I do not like it. But I will go on fighting."

With Sicily in Allied hands, it was time to invade mainland Italy. The 3rd Division landed at Salerno in Southern Italy in September 1943. One of Murphy’s first acts of heroism occurred near there, at a bridge across the Volturno river. Murphy, his best friend Lattie Tipton, and a third comrade came under unexpected machine gun fire from German soldiers which killed the third man. Tipton started throwing grenades and Murphy opened up with his Thompson submachine gun
(Read our earlier article), killing the five attackers. Murphy, already a corporal by the time, was promoted to sergeant in December. The 3rd Division already knew that they were going to make an amphibious landing behind German lines near Anzio as part of a plan to dislodge the Germans from the Gustav Line  (Read our earlier article); Murphy was made section leader and promoted again, to staff sergeant, on January 13, 1944. 

An American officer being rescued from the Volturno River in Italy
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Murphy missed the initial landing due to a bout of malaria, but soon rejoined his unit and participated in the disastrous First Battle of Cisterna (Read our earlier article), which led to the elimination of a Ranger regiment. 

In early March, during the three-month stalemate that developed at Anzio, Murphy and his men were taking shelter in an abandoned farmhouse when they witnessed a nearby German tank getting knocked out by American artillery. The crew fled, but the tank was still in operating condition and could have been reclaimed. Murphy left the building alone and crawled to the tank, rendering it unusable with his rifle grenades. He continued leading scouting patrols until falling ill with malaria once more two weeks later. He returned to the fight after recovery and was promoted to platoon sergeant in August, after the liberation of Rome, and just in time for the division’s next test: Operation Dragoon
(Read our earlier article), the landing in Southern France in August 1944. 

National Guardsman Captain Audie Murphy during the filming of the 1952 U.S. Army documentary Broken Bridge
(Photo: U.S. Army)

One of the light machine gun squads in Murphy’s platoon got separated from the rest of the unit during the advance inland and came under German fire. Murphy ran out alone to find the wayward squad; once he found them, he took their machine gun and returned fire, killing two Germans and wounding one. He was joined by his friend Tipton soon after. The two came upon a house with Germans in it, two of whom came out waving a white flag. Tipton stepped out of cover to accept the surrender – the Germans opened up on him with a machine gun inside the building, killing him. Overtaken by rage, Murphy advanced on the house alone, ignoring the fire aimed at him, killing six Germans, wounding two and taking the rest prisoner. For this action, and for his rescue of the machine gun squad, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

U.S. airborne soldiers in Southern France during Operation Dragoon
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Murphy received his first Purple Heart after a close brush with death in Northeast France in September 1944, when an artillery shell that killed two other men wounded his heel. Two weeks later, in October, his unit became involved in driving dug-in Germans out of a quarry. Advancing on a German machine gun position alone, Murphy stood up 15 yards (14 m) from the Germans to throw grenades at them, only avoiding the return fire because the machine gun’s barrel got caught in something for a moment. Murphy received the Silver Star for taking out the machine gun crew single-handedly. A few days later, he advanced 50 yards (46 m) alone towards a German position that was firing directly at him. He relayed firing orders to artillery from his new spot via radio, then stayed there for another hour to direct his men, earning the Oak Leaf Cluster for his Silver Star.
He was given a battlefield promotion to second lieutenant and became platoon leader, still in October 1944. 12 days later, his platoon came under attack by snipers. Murphy captured two of the three attackers and killed the third, but not before he himself was shot in the hip. Rain and mud prevented medical evacuation, forcing him and other wounded men to wait three days. The delay caused gangrene to develop in Murphy’s wound, forcing him to undergo several surgeries.

A photo of Murphy taken in a studio somewhere in France in late 1944

Murphy’s finest hour as a soldier came on January 26, 1945, after he returned to his unit. The 3rd Division had been ordered to secure several bridges near the Colmar Pocket, an area held by the surrounded German Nineteenth Army. The division met a strong German counterattack near the village of Holtzwihr on the 24th, when mortar shells wounded Murphy on both legs. Two days later, Murphy was the only officer remaining in Company B of the 15th Regiment, with the total fighting strength of the company reduced to 18 men. Their position came under attack by six German tanks issuing forth from Holtzwihr, accompanied by several waves of infantry. An American M10 tank destroyer (Read our earlier article) near Murphy’s position was set on fire by a direct hit from a tank, forcing the crew to flee to the nearby forest. Murphy ordered his men to follow suit and take refuge among the trees. He then climbed on the flaming wreckage of the M10 and opened fire on the Germans with its .50 caliber machine gun (Read our earlier article), knowing that the vehicle under his feet could blow up at any moment. He stayed there, fully exposed, killing and wounding 50 Germans while getting hit in the leg, only abandoning the vehicle once he ran out of ammunition. “As if under the influence of some drug, I slide off the tank destroyer and, without once looking back, walk down the road through the forest. If the Germans want to shoot me, let them. I am too weak from fear and exhaustion to care” – he later wrote. He then rejoined his men in the forest and, with an untreated leg wound, led them on a successful counterattack. He was promoted to first lieutenant and awarded the Medal of Honor for his act of heroism.

Memorial to Murphy’s heroic stand near Holtzwihr
(Photo: Audie Murphy Mémorial Holtzwihr, Facebook)

By the end of the war, Audie Murphy had received every award the U.S. Army could grant a serviceman for combat action. He also received three French awards, including the Legion of Honor, the country’s highest military decoration, and the Belgian Croix de guerre. Interestingly, the latter was forwarded by the Belgian authorities to the Pentagon, as there was no Congressional approval for U.S. soldiers receiving it. The U.S. Army then forwarded it to Murphy in 1968, after the relevant law was passed.

U.S. Army publicity photo of Audie Murphy in 1948, when he received the Legion of Honor
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Murphy returned to the States and to a hero’s welcome, with photographers following his every step, and Life magazine declaring him the most decorated American soldier ever. He considered enrolling at West Point and turning to a career in soldiering. Despite finding supporters, he eventually decided against the idea, believing that his wartime wounds would make it impossible for him to meet the physical requirements.

Even war heroes can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and Murphy turned out to be a victim of it. He had nightmares and slept with a loaded gun under his pillow. He had impulsive reflexes to sudden noises, flashbacks that caused him to stop in his tracks, and once broke down crying after seeing a newsreel about German war orphans. During a 1952 publicity tour, his nightmares caused him to strike at the walls of motel room until his fists bled. He got addicted to a sleeping pill called Placidyl; recognizing his drug problem in the 1960s, he sequestered himself in a hotel room for a week and successfully broke the addiction. He briefly wrote poetry after his discharge from the Army as a coping mechanism, and started to speak openly about his problems later in life to draw attention to the similar plight of the veterans of Korea and Vietnam. He called for increased attention to and study of the emotional impact of combat, and for extending veterans’ benefits to cover combat stress treatment. “After the war, they took Army dogs and rehabilitated them for civilian life. But they turned soldiers into civilians immediately, and let 'em sink or swim” – he once said.

Murphy in To Hell and Back, a film based on his memoir
(Photo: Universal Pictures Company)

But despite his PTSD and his decision not to attend West Point, Murphy was not quite done with the military yet. In 1950, when the Korean War broke out, two generals who knew him convinced him to join the 36th Infantry Division, which was a part of the Texas National Guard. Accepted into the division at the rank of captain (he would later be promoted to major despite not spending enough years as captain to qualify), he trained recruits in bayonet, marksmanship and close order drills. Perhaps more importantly, he allowed the division to use his face and name in recruitment drives. Murphy believed that the Korean War was the beginning of World War III, but the 36th Division was not called up in the end. He tried to balance his National Guard service with his film career for a while, but finally transferred to inactive status in 1957, and to the Army Reserve in 1966. In 2013, he posthumously received the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration that can be specifically awarded to a member of the Texas military.

Murphy with two fellow guardsmen in the Texas National Guard
(Photo: San Antonio Express-News)

Meanwhile, Murphy also excelled at civilian life. A photo of him in Life magazine after the war got him an invitation to Hollywood, where he ended up shooting over 40 films, most of them Westerns. One notable exception was the 1955 autobiographical movie To Hell and Back, based on Murphy’s own 1949 memoir of the same title. He also starred in the controversial Western TV series Whispering Smith, which was shut down after 26 episodes filmed due to a Senate investigation over violent content. Murphy also wrote country songs, the two best-known being Shutters and Boards and When the Wind Blows in Chicago, both written in 1962.

Murphy in a publicity photo for the 1951 Civil War film The Red Badge of Courage
(Photo: public domain)

Besides his acting career, Murphy also bred racehorses. Heavy gambling and a failed business venture into Algerian oil left him in financial difficulties in the last years of his life, but he adamantly refused to appear in cigarette or alcohol commercials, considering them a bad influence on kids.
Audie Murphy died on May 28, 1971, when a private plane he was travelling on crashed into a mountainside in Virginia. He was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, where his grave is the second most-visited, after that of President John F. Kennedy. The inscription on the graves of Medal of Honor recipients at Arlington is usually decorated with gold leaf. Murphy’s is an exception, as he previously asked his headstone to be left plain like that of any other common soldier.

Audie Murphy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery
(Photo: Arlington National Cemetery)

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